Modest Style

A quick guide to Islamic empires

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History is dreary no more when the subject is the political theatre of Islam’s Golden Age. By Sya Taha.

The Alhambra (Image: Fotolia)
The interior beauty of the Alhambra (Image: Fotolia)

When I was a young Muslim kid growing up, I had to attend Islamic classes every Sunday. The history lessons were unclear, but from them I got the (correct) idea that there were four caliphs who ruled after Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). And since I had also vaguely heard about several Islamic empires, I got the (false) impression that each caliph had his own dynasty.

I was an intellectually awkward teenager trying to empower my Muslim self with the achievements of the Golden Age of Islam, but I had no idea where this time period fit in with the rest of history. Later I realised that what could be called an “empire” happened after the reign of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs who strove to keep the message of Muhammad (pbuh) alive: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.

Khalifa / Caliph
Khalifa in the Qur’an (2:30, 38:26) means a vicegerent on earth, referring to human beings. Historically, when the ummah (global Muslim community) could be considered one governable population (during the time of the Prophet (pbuh), for example), the leader was called a khalifa, or caliph. When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) passed away in 632, the four rulers who succeeded him each became known by the title of Rightly Guided Caliph. The political rulers of the various Islamic empires that came afterwards also proclaimed themselves the rightful caliphs.

The Umayyad elite (661 – 737 CE / 40 – 120 AH)

When Muhammad (pbuh) first began his prophetic career, the Umayyads were part of Mecca’s rich elite, who also harassed his followers when he still lived in Mecca. When Muhammad (pbuh) was spreading the Word of God, condemning those who were rich but did not care for society’s downtrodden and marginalised, the Umayyads were some of the people he was referring to.

Before Islam the Umayyads were merely the city elite. But once Islam started to prove, in a way, how Muslims could also achieve success in this world, they converted to Islam and became the elite of a global empire.

The main man in this empire was Mu’awiya; he was the cousin of Umar, the second caliph. Earlier during Umar’s reign, Mu’awiya was appointed the governor of Damascus and he kept this position throughout the reigns of the next two caliphs, Uthman and Ali. Towards the end of Ali’s reign, Mu’awiya formally refused to accept Ali as caliph, and led an army against him. When Ali was assassinated by one of his own followers, Mu’awiya declared himself caliph. Towards the end of his life, his son Yazid succeeded him.

The empire of the Umayyads launched the evolution of Islam as a civilisation and political empire. During their reign the Umayyads nurtured Islam’s religious institutions, like mosques and waqf – philantrophic religious foundations. They also declared Arabic as the official language, replacing Greek in the western ends of their empire – an empire that stretched from Cordoba in the west to Persia in the east, covering parts of modern day Iran and Afghanistan.

Abbasids take over, one Umayyad gets away (737 – 961 CE / 120 – 350 AH)

The Umayyads had created what seemed to be a stable empire, with Yazid’s descendants ruling for several generations. But the homogenisation of doctrine and bureaucracy within the empire had resulted in growing discontent among two marginalised groups: the Shi’a against the orthodox religious establishment, and the Persians against the Arab political establishment. Eventually, these two groups mapped onto each other.

This 1940s picture shows the 9th-century Malwiya Minaret with a spiral ramp at the Great Mosque of Samarra, 125 km north of Baghdad. Photo: DSK/AFP
This 1940s picture shows the 9th-century Malwiya Minaret with a spiral ramp at the Great Mosque of Samarra, 125 km north of Baghdad. Photo: DSK/AFP

Meanwhile in Iraq, a small anti-government band called the Hashimites dispatched to Merv (in today’s Turkmenistan) a professional revolutionary with the pseudonym Abu Muslim. His job was to protest against the growing materialism of the Umayyads and to promote the installation of Abu al-Abbas, a distant relative of the Prophet (pbuh), in order to return the Muslim world to the right track.

Abu Muslim’s army clashed with the Umayyads in Iraq, but not before incorporating bands of discontented Persians along the way. They won, and the Hashimites proclaimed Abbas as the new caliph. To cement his power, Abbas had the leading members of any surviving Umayyads killed; his brother Mansur later had Abu Muslim executed as well. The Abbasid empire had officially begun.

In embracing an orthodox approach to Islam, which had been developing under the Umayyads, Sunnism was born and was considered a clear sect, separate from Shi’ism. Perhaps the most important outcome of the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled for over 200 years, was the building of Baghdad.

Civilisation, culture, philosophy and art blossomed and reached a peak during the first two centuries or so. When Abbas died, his brother Mansur decided to build a new capital to serve as the empire’s focal point. Called the Round City because of the circular palace complex at its centre, Baghdad became the biggest and busiest city of its time. Traders, merchants and vendors settled in concentric circles around the palace, creating a maze of streets and alleys, mosques and bathhouses.

An Iraqi policeman stands at the Wastani gate of the historical wall of Baghdad, which dates back to the Abbasid era. Ali al-Saadi/AFP
An Iraqi policeman stands at the Wastani gate of the historical wall of Baghdad, which dates back to the Abbasid era. Ali al-Saadi/AFP

The thing about history is that it’s never linear; there are many simultaneous events happening all the time. If you’re sad that the Umayyads were all executed by Abbas, don’t despair: there’s a glimmer of hope. The last Umayyad nobleman, Abdul Rahman, fled to Andalusia (today’s Spain) while the Abbasid dynasty was starting up. Andalusians accepted him as their leader because as far as they knew, the Umayyads were still their leaders. And besides, Baghdad was geographically too far away to make much of an immediate impact.

Andalusia claimed to be independent from Baghdad, believing they were still the rightful caliphate. When Muslims (and non-Muslims) talk about the Golden Age, they are often referring to the Andalusian Umayyad empire. At its peak the capital of Cordoba boasted the largest libraries in Europe, hundreds of mosques, schools and bathhouses, as well as trade with North Africa and across the Mediterranean. Muslims, Jews and Christians lived under their own religious leaders and legal systems, practising their respective rituals and customs.

Co-existing caliphates: Andalusian Umayyads, Baghdadi Abbasids, and Cairene Fatimids (958 – 1095 CE / 347 – 487 AH)

In the 10th century yet another city rose up to challenge the Abbasid caliphate, which was by now clearly Sunni. A group of Tunisian Shi’a warriors seized Egypt from the Abbasid empire, and declared themselves the true caliph of Islam because they were descendants of Fatima, the Prophet’s (pbuh) daughter. They built a new capital and named it “Victory”: Qahira, or Cairo.

The Shi’ite Fatimid empire could be proud of building Al-Azhar, the world’s second university after Al-Karaouine in Fez. Drawing upon their natural resources of the Nile river and the Mediterranean sea, this caliphate dominated the maritime routes along the Red Sea and probably outshone both Baghdad and Cordoba.

Later on, the Fatimid empire was conquered and absorbed into the Abbasid caliphate. Meanwhile, the remaining Umayyad empire in Al-Andalus lasted until 1031, when it was conquered by Catholic Spain. The Abbasid dynasty and the Golden Age effectively ended when Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols in 1258. They regrouped in a weaker form as the Mamluk empire in Egypt, which was eventually conquered by the Ottoman empire in the 16th century.

Who rules the ummah?

Prosperous as these caliphates were, they symbolised a clear fragmentation of the Muslim world. Each of them claimed to be the true caliphate, even as it was painfully obvious that the ummah was no longer coherent and united, and that their leaders were appearing to be more and more like secular kings.

From the 9th century onwards, other Islamic empires and sultanates also began to rise (and fall) in regions such as Persia, North Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. What most of these had in common was a claim to be a descendant of the Prophet (pbuh) or some other legitimacy to rule as a Muslim ruler.

I found it enthralling to know that Islamic empires co-existed, involved different degrees of bloodshed during takeovers, and included more than just the main three. When I think back to my scattered Islamic history education, an Islamic Empires 101 course sure would have kept my attention as a kid!


For historical sources and maps, see Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009) by Tamim Ansary

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 Heritage issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play

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